"WHAT," the man said. "WHAT. THE FUCK. IS THIS ALL ABOUT?" Succinct and hard to argue with, because I was hanging out of the side of a Jeep that's better equipped than my house, a Jeep blasting The Kingsmen on Blu-Ray to the Reno strip, a Jeep in a procession of multi-million dollar supercars, one of which was being driven by Pritchard off of Dirty Sanchez, who's just got so drunk on a flight from Amsterdam to Portland that he'd decided to strip naked and piss on Dolph Lundgren.
Welcome to the Gumball Rally. It's just as decadent and chaotic as it sounds.
It was my second year working for Gumball 3000, an annual supercar rally that travels 3,000 miles over seven days and somehow hops across continents, from Stockholm to Vegas, stopping at checkpoints during the day and partying at super-clubs during the night. The Gumball entrants are rich, young-to-middle-aged and almost exclusively male, and their fans are an economically inverted version of the same: no matter where in the world you park a fluorescent yellow Lamborghini, there will be a line of car nerds lining up to take a photo.
Obviously Gumball attracts very wealthy men – wealthy men who are also car geeks – who can range from sheikhs to rappers and DJs (like longterm supporters Bun B and Deadmau5), via straight-laced, older European businessmen. There's one unsponsored female team and a handful of wives and girlfriends. And some celebrities, too – as well as Dolph Lundgren and Pritchard, we had Robbie Fowler, Tommy Lee and (at least for one leg) Lewis Hamilton.
This year I was on hotels duty, guiding entrants into their cars in the morning, then catching a flight and greeting them as they arrived at their swanky hotel that night, usually pretty tired and a few hundred quid down from speeding tickets.
Why was I there? Every year, entrants are ushered around the world by a small team of Gumball staff and an army of volunteers, who are unpaid and take holiday from their day-jobs – as everything from government workers to theme park attendants – to be there. Mostly they do it for the love of the cars, but I did it for the love of my mate Liz, who was in charge of organising most of this stuff and making sure all the rich men got to their super-club on time.
Last year I'd learned that rich men literally struggle to get from one end of a lobby to another without being told exactly what to do (it's called PA-reliance syndrome, or PARS, and it's a medical thing) and that a mildly popular UK rapper and his mates can shout at you until you cry just because they think they're entitled to a VIP parking spot above all the other multi-millionaires. Important life lessons, yes. But in life you never stop learning, so I went back round for more, and here's what I learned:
YOU'RE NEVER TOO RICH FOR FREE SHIT
After a day setting up the registration room, it was finally time to meet some entrants. Once they've signed a contract waiving any rights to anything, the Gumballers are ushered around a room to get a load of free shit that even I (who's been known to carry a half open bottle of undrinkable wine across London, simply because it's free) could not be bothered to put in my suitcase.
Reminder: these are men who paid £45,000 each to race around an engorged male power fantasy for a week. But throw a Fruit of the Loom T-shirt in front of them and they go delirious. Four different promotional baseball caps, sir? Sure! Eight key rings? One for each car, mate! A pad of Post-It notes in the shape of a watch and therefore unusable to write any notes on? YES PLEASE.
Get to the items that are worth more than £20, though, and that's when the madness really kicks in: turns out telling a group of rich men that they're only allowed one set of sub-£100 headphones is impossible. One looked me in the eye, picked up his third pair and said, "I'm going to take these." The only austerity some of these people will ever know is someone giving them one pair of headphones when they really wanted two.
A WHATSAPP GROUP WITH 100 PARTICIPANTS WILL MAKE YOU WISH THE INTERNET HAD NEVER BEEN INVENTED
Anyone who's ever been in a WhatsApp group of over-excited friends or technologically-challenged family members knows the acute fear-inducing sensation that only the soft-vibrate and illumination of a new message can bring.
With staff members spread across continents – tasked with the unenviable challenge of co-ordinating the safe passage of more than 100 wealthy people travelling in super cars (all while stripped of their PA lifeline) across 3,000 miles – a WhatsApp group was settled upon as the best form of communication.
Shockingly, a group of 100 staff members communicating across time zones about every single little detail you can imagine proved to be the worst thing ever created in the human universe. Example:
1:04:31: Does anyone know where the press wristbands are?
1:04:36: No, sorry. [ANGRY FACE EMOJI]
1:04:37: No, that's Bob's job
1:04:45: Where are you?
1:04:45: Where is Bob?
1:04:51: If you see Bob, he should be able to sort you out [SMILEY EMOJI]
1:04:52: Has anyone seen Crew 35?
1:04:53: Yes [MONKEY HIDING EYES EMOJI]
1:04:56: Yes you know where the wristbands are? Or the crew?
1:05:01: They're in Room 45
1:05:03: The wristbands or the crew? [STEAM COMING OUT OF NOSTRILS EMOJI]
1:05:03: Why don't you know where they are? This is your responsibility
1:05:13: Hey, did anyone see this funny picture of a car? [CRY-LAUGH EMOJI]
1:05:17: Does anyone know where the wristbands are?
1:05:17: [EXTREME SILENCE]
By the third day the sight of an emoticon made me want to commit actual murder.
'BABIES' ARE A THING
There are a couple of wives and partners on the rally. There is exactly one female team. There are three Guess models. And two girls from AnastaciaDate (a Gumball sponsor that primarily connects American men with Eastern European women) and two from Asia Date (ditto, but Asian women). That, plus staff, is the entirety of the female contingent.
So sometimes, when Gumball has exclusive access to a club, you find that it is 100 men sadly and quietly drinking champagne. Sort of like a business conference after-party immediately following the motivational speaker's on-stage breakdown about his divorce. That is to say: it is not a fun party.
What do you do to remedy this? You hire some "babies", the highly creepy word used to describe the women hired to come and hang out with said men, and to be bought drinks by them in return for feigning attention. Weird, yes, but it does liven things up.
YOU CAN BE A COMPETITIVE INSOMNIAC
By day two, among both the crew and the participants, there appeared to be no greater victory than informing someone of exactly how little sleep you'd had. The kudos attached to heading straight from a nightclub and back to your hotel for a quick breakfast before heading to your car would have people behind the Think! campaign passing out in a hysterical mess.
On the Gumball, a common reply to the sentence, "Morning sir, breakfast is this way," would be: "You get any sleep last night? Really? I didn't. Half an hour, maybe. Like, I can barely see. I am basically dead right now. I'm basically dead because I have had SO MUCH LESS SLEEP THAN YOU." Then they slam into the mini croissants and weave down an ill-policed highway for eight hours before hitting a club again. Legitimately weird that we don't have more mass hallucinations among participants.
I CAN EAT MORE BREAKFAST THAN HE-MAN
As most of the entrants leave the hotel to hit the road, us hotel staff have around an hour to stuff our faces and run to the airport. So on the second leg, in Oslo, I was digging into an enormous second-showing buffet, and I didn't hold back. That's when I discovered I can eat two more plates of breakfast than action hero and martial artist Dolph Lundgren. In fact, Ivan Drago/He-Man's muscles come from a very lean breakfast, which, as far as I could tell, consisted mainly of honey.
YOU WILL NEVER HAVE EVERY POSSESSION IN THE WORLD
Heading back downstairs to lead the stragglers out one morning, an entrant walked by, cool as could be, wearing a coconut as a necklace, which doubled as a speaker. In fact, when he popped to the loo, he very kindly left his phone with us so the Bluetooth connection and the lovely smooth jazz didn't break. There is always something more that you can spend your money on. Think you have everything? You don't have a coconut necklace that doubles as a speaker, do you?
DRUNKENNESS IS BETTER THAN JETLAG, AND TOMMY LEE RULES
Somewhere between two hours sleep in Copenhagen and our second flight of the day towards Reno, we decided the best way to beat the jet lag was to remain low-level drunk for 30 hours.
Blagging entrance to the lounge at LAX during a stopover, we downed four free champagnes before heading to our gate, where we saw soon-to-be entrant Tommy Lee at the bar. We marched up to him for a chat and found that he's utterly charming, softly spoken and looks surprisingly good for his age (possibly not all his own work). This excellent review definitely has nothing to do with him instantly buying us all a gin. Definitely nothing to do with the fact that now, when people ask me how the rally went, I can say, "Well, Tommy Lee bought me a gin."
Here's some other stuff I learned about Tommy Lee: he loved Whiplash and thought Miles Teller did an excellent job of drumming; he's a bit clumsy and spilt almost an entire can of tonic in his lap, but managed to somehow style it out; he has heard of a common-or-garden-variety dirty sanchez, but he has not heard of rally entrant Pritchard from the show Dirty Sanchez. This made for a pretty confusing conversation.
GUMBALL AIR IS BASICALLY A TEENAGER'S WILDEST WET DREAM
I know what you're thinking: 'Did you learn any maths on your trip, mate? Because Stockholm to Las Vegas is actually 5,323.14 miles, not 3,000, as insinuated in the whole Gumball 3000 thing.' That's where Gumball Air comes in – a privately chartered jet to fly cars from Amsterdam to Reno, helpfully circumventing obstacles such as a large and ferocious ocean, and cutting 2,000-odd miles from the total drive time. Anything goes when it comes to Gumball Air. And that's why I'm unbelievably glad I missed it.
Because it was chaos. There was the naked, pissy Pritchard incident, of course, but that was just the start: as the WhatsApp group told us on landing, there was a constant and suspicious-smelling haze around the entire cabin, the Guess models broke out into a "spontaneous" pillow fight and everyone who was foolish enough to fall asleep came back to ground with a Sharpie moustache. Imagine if teenage boys never grew out of laughing at their own farts on sleepovers and were rich enough to pay models to enact softcore fantasies in front of them.
You just imagined Gumball Air.
LEWIS HAMILTON ISN'T THAT GOOD AT DRIVING
Lewis Hamilton was shipped in to take part in the final leg, ostensibly to give the Rally a PR boost, but also working to piss off each and every participant who had done the last 2,500 miles. That is, until a moment of pure schadenfreude hit: as I was about to board a flight to Vegas, the WhatsApp group lit up with the news that someone needed to get to Lewis because he'd run out of petrol. In Death Valley. Without water. And he couldn't figure out how to get the roof of the car back up. He survived, but just think about that next time he comes over to your house and asks to borrow your Corsa.
DRIVING 3,000 MILES IS SURPRISINGLY UNDERWHELMING
We somehow made it to the end of the rally, and I was in the drop-off zone of the Bellagio Hotel in Vegas, directing cars into the right spot in the car park. It was really fucking hot, but also distinctly underwhelming.
My job was to say a weak, "Ya–ay, you made it!" through the crack of a window to an exhausted driver and a backseat full of dudes slicked to the leather with their own sweat. There was absolutely zero overarching sense of achievement. There was very little excited whooping and hollering. An hour or so later, the roofs would go down and some vague "WHAT-WHAT" and "YEAH BABY" screams would wind their way into the night, but in that moment everyone just needed a sit down, a big bottle of water and maybe a go on a nice, quiet bed.
YOU'LL PROBABLY NEVER BE AS FAMOUS AS SHMEE150
As is now Gumball tradition, as the cars roll into every city they're greeted by thousands of car-lovers (the rally closed down the whole of London's Regent Street last year with crowds eight-deep), cheering these rich men in their rich man cars as they slowly idle to a stop. Some are there to see the supercars; some might be fans of the celebrities. But the biggest cheer is always reserved for Shmee150.
Shmee150, in case you're not the type of person to watch an episode of Top Gear and then immediately go and search "MORE VIDEOS ABOUT CARS", is unassuming London-based car blogger Tim Burton, who is essentially a squashed-down Prince William in a slightly daddier jumper. But he's massive: he draws actual crowds of devoted fans in each city, fans with banners and posters and selfie sticks to take selfies next to him with. If you want a glimpse at the future, imagine a crowd of screaming men, waiting for six hours in the hot sun for a chance to high five a curious Clarkson-Zoella hybrid as he trundles past them slowly in his car.
To be honest, that's a large part of the attraction of Gumball – a week of "fame". No matter how much money you might have made from your tech start-up, or how rich your family might be, nobody is asking for your autograph – until you do Gumball. People actually stand outside these guys' hotels, collecting their autographs as they walk in, cheering them as they park up on the grid each night. For a week, a group of rich people who quite like cars get to live like rock stars. It's the ultimate male fantasy.
That, apparently, involves things like buying a £15,000 bottle of Ace of Spades champagne just so you can look people in the eye and pour it on the floor; smoking weed on aeroplanes; pissing a bit on Dolph Lundgren; and partying with babies. There's a lot of slightly off-time nodding to hip-hop music and making really loud vroom vroom noises with your car until people cheer. In a way, it says a lot about the intricate mind of a carefree rich man: that you would pay almost £30,000 and skip sleep for a week for some hollow façade of fame, people cheering you because your foot is pressing a pedal in a high-powered sports car. Is there satisfaction in that? Is there fulfilment? I do not know. Pritchard off of Dirty Sanchez was too busy pissing on everything for me to ask.
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